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The upper back consists of two main muscles; the trapezius and rhomboids. Dumbbell exercises that involve squeezing the shoulder blades together or raising them toward the ears are optimal for targeting these areas.
Dumbbell high elbow rows target a large portion of the upper back musculature. More specifically, the trapezius and rhomboids as there’s an emphasis on squeezing the shoulder blades at the top.
Below I’ll explain how to perform the high row along with three more dumbbell exercises. This way you have some options to hit each part of the upper back.
Table of Contents
1. Perform Dumbbell Rows With Your Elbows Flared
Elbow positioning is key when performing the dumbbell high row to stimulate the entire trap muscle. This is because they have three fiber sections: the upper, middle, and lower.
EMG testing has shown the most simultaneous activation across all three sections when the shoulder blades are squeezed at 90 degrees of abduction. Abduction is the angle your elbow is held in relation to the side of your waist.
Toward the end of the movement, your rhomboids engage to assist the traps in squeezing the shoulder blades. Make sure you emphasize that squeeze to maximize the upper back contraction.
To perform the dumbbell high row:
- Grab dumbbells with your thumbs facing each other.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hinge your hips to angle your upper body parallel to the floor while keeping your chest tall.
- Relax your arms toward the floor, allowing the dumbbells to protract, or pull your shoulder blades down.
- This stretches the upper back muscles.
- Make sure to keep your chest tall when your shoulder blades are in this position.
- Face a few feet in front of you and breathe into your stomach to brace your core.
- Pull the dumbbells toward the sides of your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades.
- Exhale, then reverse to step 3.
- Repeat for 4 sets of 8-12 reps.
To accentuate the upper traps, angle your torso between 50 and 60 degrees, instead of parallel. This adds a shrugging motion at the top, which is this portion of the muscle’s main function.
- The pulling pattern is more in line with the upper back muscles than a standard dumbbell row.
- Because you’re pulling toward your chest rather than your hips, tension shifts from the middle to the upper back.
- Fatiguing to the lower back.
- The spinal erector muscles are going to be heavily involved in securing the bent-over upper body positioning.
- If these muscles are weak, they will become the limiting factor of the exercise, preventing you from pushing the upper back to its limit.
If this is a problem, use a bench to stabilize your lower back. I have an article on a one-arm dumbbell high row with bench support that you should check out!
2. Do Dumbbell Shrugs With Your Arms Abducted
Dumbbell shrugs are an upper trap-specific exercise, which is often an underdeveloped muscle. To emphasize them, hold the dumbbells with your arms held 30 degrees out from your waist.
These should be performed for higher rep ranges of 10-20 for 2-3 sets. Focus on raising your shoulder blades toward the ceiling and your ears to engage your upper traps more.
To do dumbbell shrugs:
- Hold dumbbells with your palms facing each other and 15-30 degrees from the sides of your waist.
- Stand upright with your head neutral.
- Breathe in and lift the dumbbells by moving your shoulder blades up.
- Raise your shoulders as high as possible, while breathing out.
- It is okay to slightly bend your elbows on the way up, but don’t flex your biceps.
- Lower under control, allowing the weight to stretch your shoulder blades.
- Minimal recruitment from surrounding muscle groups.
- You can completely isolate the upper traps without being limited by other upper back muscles.
- Grip is a limiting factor.
- Converse to the benefit I mentioned above, the forearm flexors may limit your ability to work the upper traps to failure.
- If your grip is not strong enough to hold onto the weight, consider wearing wrist straps.
If you’re thinking about scrapping this trap-specific exercise, don’t! I recommend reading my article on why skipping trap training is not okay.
3. Hit Dumbbell Upright Rows, Pulling to Your Face
Although dumbbell upright rows are typically used to target the side delts, the upper traps are also involved. They can be emphasized over the delts by lifting the weights above shoulder height. This promotes a shrugging component at the top, which again is a function of the upper traps.
To hit dumbbell upright rows:
- Grab your dumbbells with an overhand grip.
- Stand with your chest tall and your arms relaxed at your sides.
- Breathe in and lift your upper arms out and up until the dumbbells are at face height.
- Move the dumbbells up in a fairly straight line, without letting them drift too far in front of your body.
- The shoulders naturally shrug as you row the weight.
- Again, lift the weight to face height to maximize the upper trap contraction. If this hurts your shoulders, only pull to shoulder height, or don’t do this exercise.
- May cause shoulder impingement.
- To mitigate this, spread the dumbbells apart while pulling.
- I prefer doing low-weight, high reps of 12-15 for 4 or 5 sets as I feel the muscles without my shoulders clicking.
4. Do Reverse Flys by Squeezing Your Shoulders
During reverse flys, the primary motion is horizontal shoulder extension, which targets the rear delts. These are shoulder muscles located on the upper back. You can turn the movement into an upper back isolator by adding scapular retraction.
This hits the rear delts but shifts tension onto the middle traps and rhomboids in the end range of motion. Since you’re not solely targeting the rear delts, using fairly heavy weights for 8-12 reps is okay.
To do reverse flys:
- Hold the dumbbells with a neutral grip.
- Slightly bend your knees and lean your upper body horizontally over the ground.
- Hang the dumbbells below your chest with your elbows slightly bent.
- Swing the weights out and back toward the ceiling and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Reverse and repeat.
- Isolates your upper back and rear delts.
- Since they’re near one another, the rear delts, traps, and rhomboids all provide the appearance of a muscular upper back.
Dumbbell Workout To Target Your Upper Back
Here’s how you could incorporate these exercises into a workout. I placed the upright rows last so the upper traps are pre-exhausted. This fatigues them with lighter weights, prevents the side delts from taking over, and decreases joint discomfort.
Dumbbell upper back workout:
- High elbow row: 4 sets x 10 reps
- Reverse fly: 3 x 12
- Shrug: 2 x 20
- Upright row: 4 x 15